After the Commission of Inquiry was announced in January, Premier Andrew Fahie and other leaders promised that the government would assist investigators by providing requested information as transparently as possible.
They appear to be falling short.
We were extremely troubled to read the COI’s recent claim that documents disclosed by public officials so far “appeared to be substantially incomplete and in very poor order” to the point where it was “difficult or impossible to ascertain anything useful” from some of them.
This allegation is supported by transcripts of recent COI hearings in which multiple public officers were unable to convincingly explain their failure to produce certain documents.
They must do better.
Given Hurricane Irma in 2017, we understand that some older documents might be difficult to locate, even though this excuse is wearing rather thin nearly four years after the storm.
But as the hearing transcripts make clear, many of the missing documents originated in the past two or three years, meaning that they should exist in an easily searchable digital format.
Moreover, the commission members alleged that some public officials initially didn’t acknowledge their failure to turn over certain requested records: They simply omitted the documents from their submissions without explanation.
Taken together, these failures cast a troubling shadow over leaders’ repeated claims that they are fully committed to assisting the COI.
After the inquiry was launched, the VI government hired a United Kingdom-headquartered law firm and established an Inquiry Response Unit at taxpayer expense, purportedly with the purpose of ensuring that the COI’s requests were met in a timely and comprehensive manner.
Now the public is left to wonder what has gone wrong.
We don’t doubt that public officers worked long and hard to compile the more than 85,000 pages provided to the commission so far, but to date we have heard no reasonable explanation for the failure to provide the rest.
The hearing transcripts show that the missing documents include basic information about controversial topics: the barges that government rented last year to help secure the borders; the contract awarded to the Jamaica-based Amber Group to set up a quarantine-tracking system that has been much criticised; Crown land distribution across the territory; and others.
Moving forward, elected officials and public officers alike must go back to the drawing board and quickly produce all the requested documents as the commission has now ordered.
Continued failure to do so will put the territory in jeopardy as the COI prepares to make its recommendations in the coming months.
If the commissioner finds that the government’s record-keeping is so poor that he is unable to carry out his mandate to investigate potential corruption here, the United Kingdom seems much more likely to suspend the Constitution and implement direct rule as it did in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009.
To help prevent such an outcome, public officials must be as transparent as possible with the COI, just as leaders have promised since January.
Ultimately, the inquiry should be treated as an opportunity to identify the territory’s governance shortcomings and to work together to correct them. To meet that goal, full transparency is required.